What is this? I've stepped into the bull riff: both a line from Still Flyin's new song "Bull Riff" and a fitting sentiment for any fan of the San Francisco band flummoxed by its new direction. The many-member collective of musically adept goofballs made its mark early on playing what frontman and mastermind Sean Rawls deemed "joke reggae" across a pair of EPs, then progressed into a purer form of pop for its debut full-length, then — and this is where the shock comes — went, for a few songs at least, straight synth like Eighties band Talk Talk or even Duran Duran, no reggae rhythm to be found. There are even remixes. What, exactly, is this?
Midway through the band's drunken album-release party for Neu Ideas Friday at the Rickshaw Stop, when Rawls announced that they wouldn't be playing any more music from the new record, a voice in the crowd muttered "Good!" — sheepishly, but loud enough for others to hear. Sure, Still Flyin' classics like "The Bird Is Aware," "Rope Burn," and "The Art of Jamming" were fiercely anticipated, as were gems from 2009 full-length Never Gonna Touch the Ground like "Good Thing It's a Ghost Town Around Here" and "The Hott Chord Is Struck." But listen closely to the new material and you'll hear a direct line running from the weed-loving joke-reggae collective through the joyful studio-tuned pop band and into the modern-day synth-soaked Eighties art-pop band. Listen closely and you'll even hear a bit of "The Bird Is Aware" in new songs like "All Lips Touch" and "Runaway Train II."
But the dude did have a point; the new stuff, more dramatic and cooly calculated than Still Flyin's three-sheets-to-the-wind breakout material, didn't seem to translate well to live performance. Of the two or three new songs played live for the first time in the band's hometown on Friday, none made much of an impression. The Neu Ideas studio recordings, however, get it done — check out "Strength," "Higher Than Five," and the aforementioned "All Lips Touch" on the band's MySpace page.
Opener Social Studies, also of San Francisco, played an engaging set of nearly unclassifiable pop that did what Still Flyin's new songs largely failed to do: capture the imagination. Serious fans ate the whole Still Flyin' set up, but others in the back of the room appeared a bit mystified by the whole thing, perhaps wondering why the band they thought they liked was no longer the band they thought they liked. A bit of fault was due to both parties: for full effect, Still Flyin's new songs demand more steely-faced precision than the band was willing or able to provide live (this, of course, clashes with their carefree attitude); and the audience, for its part, seemed to have decided, wrongly, that the new stuff is not as good as the old.
Of course, this does nothing to explain what exactly a bull riff is, and how one might step into one. Neu Ideas is available February 1 in stores and on iTunes via Ernest Jenning Records.
"Good Thing It's a Ghost Town Around Here"
"The Hott Chord Is Struck"